Now Rhodes has written a book — “After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made” — about his personal post-Obama journey that sought to answer a simple question: What happened to the world, America, and himself as the undertow of history pulled us into the currents of nationalism and authoritarianism – and what we should do about it?
As he learned and you’ll hear, there may be simple questions. There are no simple answers.
Ben is the author of the New York Times bestseller The World as It Is, a contributor for NBC News and MSNBC, and co-host of Pod Save the World.
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Ben Rhodes: Glad to be with you.
Chris Riback: So, let’s start with the important stuff. What’s harder, the first book or the second one? I mean, with kids, and you have two, it’s definitely the first one, but your first book-child became a New York Times Bestseller, so you’ve got a high bar here for number two, Ben.
Ben Rhodes: Yes, this one was harder. I mean, I wrote the first one in a year. I mean, I basically just, I signed a contract and I actually handed in the book one year to the day that I signed the contract. And it was-
Chris Riback: You’re the first author in history who has ever done it in a year and met the deadline. So, you actually, it could be argued, you did it wrong.
Ben Rhodes: I made a decision to just, it was just so fresh. The eight-year experience was so fresh in that book when I look back on it, is really the first draft, just like, “Here’s how I processed this.” I haven’t even digested it yet. This one, I really lived with this for three years because, as you’ll see, I traveled around the world for this book. Spent time in Hungary, spent time in Hong Kong, spend time in a whole bunch of places talking to people, gathering stories, and living the events. I’m talking about the rise of authoritarianism and nationalism, the kind of fall of democracy. And I’m living those events in the United States at the same time that I’m writing about them in other places.
So this was a really challenging experience. And we’ve been talking about this, but I ended up having to kind of challenge a lot of my own assumptions. But it was also, therefore, much more satisfying. And I’m not just saying this, I liked this book better, because it was, the first one is kind of like, “Hey, here’s what happened. I’m just going to tell you the events from the time I went to work for Obama till January 20, 2017.” This one I really, my writing led me in places that I didn’t know I was going to go. And that was hard, but also thrilling.
Chris Riback: This book was about America, it was about the world, but it was about you. I mean, it’s a really personal book. And you put yourself out there in that book. So let’s start with you. You had and have had the incredible privilege, I’m sure you see it that way, of a seat at the table for the highest level decision-making of International Affairs – President, Secretaries of State, Prime Ministers. You are surely, and it comes across, highly respectful about the opportunities that you create for yourself and had.
Yet, as you’ve written a book about where the world and America stand, you didn’t seek out just those types of leaders. I mean, sure, you have the rare benefit of getting to bounce your ideas off of President Obama. I bounced mine of my buddy down the street, you do yours with Obama. It’s really, it’s like it’s the same thing. You sought out individuals, dissidents, opposition figures, young people. Why’d you do that?
Ben Rhodes: I’m so glad you noticed this. So, I was spit out of this position of power and the book is in many ways about power. For eight years, I’m in the room. And then I’m spit out, and Donald Trump is President, so not only I’m no longer in the room, but kind of the opposite of everything I thought I was working on, everything I believed in is there. And that’s an incredibly disorienting experience. And I take people into my feelings about that. And I think this book is really more personal than even my memoir, because I’m wrestling with the book.
Then what I found is I had this unique opportunity, as someone who is in power, to then go and seek out the people who kind of lived on the other end of the issues that I worked on. So, in Russia, we obviously dealt with Putin, but now, I could sit down and talk to Zhanna Nemtsova, whose father had been assassinated in the shadow of the Kremlin to Alexei Navalny, who obviously is Putin’s chief opponent. But then also to young Hong Kong protesters, to activists in Hungary who are fighting for democracy. And it’s this experience of being someone who wasn’t in power, who could then go talk to people kind of on the other end of power, that I think makes the book exciting to me. And I kind of inhabited their experiences. How they lived these events that I looked at from kind of the exalted distance of the White House and what can I learn from inhabiting their experience.
Chris Riback: Yes. I mean, this word carries negative connotation these days and I don’t mean it in that sense. I mean it in the best sense of privilege of getting to spend that time. That’s a rare opportunity, particularly with a wife and two kids to get to take that time.
Ben Rhodes: Yes. I mean, I got the opportunity to kind of see what was happening in America and around the world through these other people’s eyes. And I think there are two stories that illustrate that in different ways. I mean, first is kind of when I had the idea to really pursue this novel is that was meeting with this Hungarian activist and we were sitting in Berlin. And I asked him-
Chris Riback: Is it Lederer?
Ben Rhodes: Yes, Sándor Lederer. And I asked him, “Hey, how did you guys go from being this democracy to kind of being kind of a one-party autocracy in a decade?” And he said, “Well, that’s simple. There was a right wing populist backlash to the financial crisis that elevated this guy, Viktor Orbán to be Prime Minister. Then he redrew the parliamentary districts to favor his party. He packed the courts with right wing judges. He enriched kind of a bunch of cronies through corruption, who then financed politics and bought up the media and created this kind of right social or this right wing media machine. And they wrapped it all up in this nationalist message of, “We are the real Hungarians, and it’s us versus them, and to them is immigrants, and it’s George Soros and it’s liberally to…”
He’s talking and I’m like, “Will he can’t be describing my experience the last decade in American politics and what I’d seen happen with the Republican Party.” So, I could kind of see America through the story of what was happening there in Hungary in a different way.
And then another person that’s more connected to what I did in government, Mohamed Soltan had been a political prisoner in Egypt, who I had participated in the effort to kind of free him. And he told me this story of being this kind of Egyptian American kid who goes to Egypt from Ohio when the protests started in the Arab Spring. He stays because he thinks finally, “My Egyptian identity and American identity, both share the opportunity of democracy.” Two years later, in 2013, there’s a coup, he was shot in a protest. He’s arrested. He’s thrown in jail. He’s tortured. He goes on a hunger strike.
And then in the most surreal thing I’d ever heard, in some ways, they let an ISIS recruiter into his cell because the government kind of wants to radicalize people who are political opponents to kind of make them all look like the radicals. And also, frankly, to justify the billions of dollars that my government gives them. And I was a part of that, too. And he debates this ISIS recruiter about nonviolent resistance versus violent resistance and how do you create change. And I had reckoned with the fact that any enterprise that is paying billions of dollars of government that imprisons an American citizen and then puts an ISIS recruiter in his cell, because they want to radicalize him to kind of perpetuate the cycle of us giving them the money, I mean, I summon… I wish more people in power kind of had to face that.
And so, those are two very different stories, but what they have in common is, sometimes we have to look at ourselves, through the eyes of other people. It’s like a family where there’s some dysfunction in the family, and you have to go talk to your friends about it to see what’s happening. That was how I felt in this entire process of reporting and writing this book.
Chris Riback: Well, conversation around dysfunctional family, I think a lot of us might be able to relate. And I’m struck by something that you just said. Through their eyes, you also take a look at yourself. Because I felt myself feeling that about you, thinking that about you that on some level, was it difficult for you in terms of considering and reconciling the roles that you’ve gotten to play with the result of where America and the world landed?
There’s this quote of yours early on in the book, and page seven that where you say, “This wasn’t some black swan event, easily explained by a couple of years’ worth of scary headlines. It ignored the lived reality of the eight years that I’d worked in the White House, the feeling that a cancer was metastasizing everywhere despite our efforts to treat it.” And I read that and I started to wonder, how difficult was it for you to go out into the world to see the disease firsthand? And know that for the previous eight years, you had been one of the doctors?
Ben Rhodes: I mean, it was definitely difficult, I think, because there’s kind of a reflexive tendency of people who had been in power to defend every single thing they did and to not want to interrogate what they did. I mean, to me, I mean, part of what I’m speaking of there is that I could feel in the Obama years, even if I agreed with most of what we did, the currents, right? The currents of history, as I described it, were just, they were steadily moving in the wrong direction.
Like Obama, there weren’t a lot of other progressive leaders around the world for him to work with. The Chinese were becoming more authoritarian. Putin was becoming more aggressive. And like some people should interrogate what we did, but it also felt like that this had been building. And part of what I look at is, for instance, the financial crisis happens, and it was a far more explosive event, I think, globally, than we understood at that time. We were just trying to-
Chris Riback: Yes. You’re telling of that is excellent. And you’re connecting what the various feelings and outcomes that the woman in Hungary and what her father went through.
Ben Rhodes: Well, thanks. And because the basic point there was that for people around the world, including in this country, in America, that was kind of the end of the faith in a certain global order. There’s kind of capitalism and globalization and American led global order was working. I mean, people were like, “Wait a second, this is not working.” And as Navalny said to me, and these are policies that obviously, some of these started under Bush and some of these were continued under Obama, Putin could basically justify his role in his corruption by saying, “Look, they just screwed over all their people with this financial collapse.” And they bailed out the bankers and everybody else kind of gotten the raw end of the deal and that that opened the door.
In the Hungary story, for instance, that opened the door to a nationalist like Orbán who could say, “Hey, look, you’re losing your sense of identity, you’re losing your sense of faith in institutions, your sense of faith that the democracy itself works.” I’m offering you the oldest sense of identity in the book. That the nationalism, that frankly, is more than norm throughout history. And then the Chinese look at the kind of collapse and confidence in the American-led model of globalization. They’re like, “Well, maybe we can challenge these guys. Maybe we don’t have to sit back and wait. Maybe we should be more assertive.” And I definitely felt that in the Obama years. And I think by the later Obama years, you could feel it more acutely when Putin is like invading Ukraine, but it was the shock of Trump getting elected of it happening here that really then forced me to question all these assumptions.
And the core assumption is and the reason I kind of go back and tell my own coming of age story, as an American, particularly one who came of age in the end of the Cold War, I had a certain assumption that things just were getting better, inevitably. That these questions were settled and that freedom and democracy were the norm and that’s was going to expand and continue. And I think-
Chris Riback: It was, as we know, the end of history.
Ben Rhodes: The end of history, exactly. I mean, this book is a bit of a response to that argument. And because what we’ve lived the last few years and up through January 6th. And I kind of put the finishing touches of this book literally right around then, is that it’s not the end of history, like history is here. And none of these things are predetermined. And frankly, the norm in history is a reversion back to nationalism, to conflict, to anti-democratic forms of society.
And I had to, through the process of writing this book, kind of disabuse myself of the inevitability of progress, while also though, on the hopeful side, recognizing that a lot of other people around the world were seeing the same thing as me. From Alexei Navalny to Hong Kong protesters, to these young people in Hungary, people are figuring this out and kind of beginning to push back. And so, my hope is at this moment, is the beginning of the pendulum swinging back and not the inevitable momentum away from democracy.
Chris Riback: And so, I want to ask you about the how on that because I am with you. I think there’s no doubt that there is a global recognition that we’re in the middle or we’re at some stage in another shift of history. And you just described it. So how does that gap get bridged? And this is something that I had been thinking about already. So, forgive me, because there’s a little bit of a lead up here.
But it connects to the B&B employee in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and your experience there and as well, January 6. So, I’m trying to think, how do you fight back when the arguments you get that we all hear are frequently not based on reality? The January 6 insurrection. It was nothing. It was tourists. And it’s not enough to say, “Well, January 6 happened. We all watched it.” Because they know that. It’s the ability to try to whitewash what everyone saw. And you could fill in the examples you do with what happens in Russia, what happened in Hungary. You wrote that your character, Lorraine, who said of head of the Chinese Communist Party, looking at a deer and believing someone who tells you it’s a horse, right?
So how do you get out of that? How do you get out of a situation you faced in Harpers Ferry? How do you start to bridge those types of gaps?
Ben Rhodes: That’s the question. And I’m glad that you took that away, because that’s what I really want people to wrestle with. I mean, I think first of all, you’re right to identify the Lorraine anecdote. Every authoritarian system depends upon changing objective reality, changing the truth. I mean, the famous Orwell statement, “Two plus two equals five.” That’s what a totalitarian system does. And if you look at everything from the Chinese Communist Party to Vladimir Putin to the Republican Party in this country, there’s kind of effort to shift objective reality, to put people in the bubbles of conspiracy theory or propaganda or nationalism. So, how do you deal with that? How do you push back on that?
I think the first thing is you have to activate. And we’ll put it this way. There’s some policy things you could do. Right? So for instance, the woman I met in West Virginia, who clearly just believed things that weren’t true, because she had consumed a steady diet of your right wing media in this country, not just Fox, but she’d clearly gone deeper on the internet into kind of conspiracy theory, kind of foreshadowing even like the QAnon theory.
Chris Riback: And had the great opportunity to debate Benghazi with Ben Rhodes before she-
Ben Rhodes: A protagonist, yes.
Chris Riback: But before she… yes, key, protagonists. Before she knew that it was Ben Rhodes. I mean, that’s… which was part-
Ben Rhodes: Totally a surreal experience, yes, to have someone who thinks I’m somebody I’m not. How to have a conversation with someone who thinks I’m this evil guy, and then is surprised when she learns who I am because she’s like, “Well, you seemed like a nice guy.” And I’m like, “Yes, because I’m not that person.” But some of this is policy, right? Like we need to get our arms around social media. And frankly, there’s a regulatory answer to combating the spread of disinformation. But more fundamentally, I think what has to happen is people who are against the direction of events need to become as connected with one another as the people who’ve been behind them.
Part of what I try to show here is that authoritarians around the world have been learning from each other. They’ve been copying each other. Viktor Orbán’s playbook for seizing power in Hungary drew very heavily on Vladimir Putin’s playbook in Russia. Candidly, the Republican Party’s playbook here in the United States has drawn on a lot of dissimilar tactics that I’ve talked about. There’s not a shared sense of solidarity and interconnection between the people pushing back. The Hong Kong protest movement, the Alexei Navalny’s of the world in Russia, the Hungarian opposition, Stacey Abrams in the Fair Fight people here in the United States. That is actually beginning to change.
You see movements. At no point in my life had there been so many kind of broad-based movements when you look at the prodemocracy movements in places like Hong Kong or Belarus, movements against inequality in Latin America, the climate strike movement everywhere, the Black Lives Matter movement. What all these things have in common is they’re against this kind of anti-democratic strain that is happening. And they need to learn from each other. And the Hungarians that I talked to, we have a lot to learn from them that are organized political parties and begin to push back. But they are also learning and they’re looking at people like Stacey Abrams and learning how to organize.
So, I think part of the answer here is just the people, there more of us than them. I mean, people do not want to live like this. There’s a kind of fashionable thing in the foreign policy circles I work on that, well, maybe the Chinese model is more attractive because it creates prosperity. And it can get things done efficiently. Well, there’s one city in the world that literally had the option of choosing the Chinese model, the people of Hong Kong. They did not want to live like that. They could see it encroaching. They could see the Communist Party telling the deer is a horse, and the whole city rose up. Now, there’s an imbalance of power, so that movement lost in the short term.
But I think in the longer term, it foreshadowed an awakening that we see what’s going on here. And so I think what really needs to happen, yes, there’s all kinds of policies that I’d like to see change. But I think the interconnection of movements globally is the one thing that has the capacity to kind of move the needle. And it can move because no talking to Hong Kong-ers in ’97 when Hong Kong was handed over from British sovereignty to Chinese, everybody thought China was going to become more like Hong Kong and not the other way around. Things changed in 20 years. Well, things can change again back in the other direction, but only if you see that kind of popular mobilization and interconnection between people pushing back.
Chris Riback: It’s important to learn from, talk to the folks who have gone through it before or are going through it and the connection, I have found myself wishing that the interview that besides this one, of course, that I would love to be able to do right now would be with Václav Havel. And somebody who thought hard about and acted around this idea of, “How do you deal with a society that is being told a deer is a horse?” There’s got to be something there.
Ben Rhodes: Well, there is and part of the lesson of a Havel and anybody who wages kind of a multi-decade effort like that on behalf of democracy is it can feel like all these movements are failing, but they fail and fail and fail until they succeed. And when they succeed, it’s usually kind of like a dam breaking and a flood. And when I look around in the US, it’s not just that Joe Biden won an election. The conversation in this country is so dramatically different than a decade ago on all this stuff. Even though the same trends I’m talking about were there a decade ago, the awareness that our democracy is under threat, that there needs to be reformed that democracy to protect things like the right to vote or to get money out of politics that social media has caused more harm than it’s created good. That frankly, the structure of our economy has created inequalities that are destabilizing.
Like that, the conversation has already shifted a good deal. And I think what a guy like Havel recognizes like the persistence of believing that things can get better. An autocratic system is designed to make you think it can’t. And I talk about this a lot in the book of how the Hong Kong and the Russians, like there’s information environment created to make them think, “Politics is not worth your time. Don’t think about it. You’ll only end up being defeated, or you’ll only end up cynical,” if you’re Russian. That’s the strategy is to turn people off, to deactivate them, and to leave politics to the powerful. That’s not what’s happening in the world. People are getting more involved, not less. And to me, that’s the hope.
Chris Riback: And Navalny gave you a great line on that. And, of course, that was before what he’s going through now, was that every time he does start to feel frustrated or starts to potentially give up hope, in his own situation with Russia, something happens. The government does something that gets him back motivated again. It would seem true that for those efforts to continue, it requires just the ability to just stay motivated. It’d be-
Ben Rhodes: And can I say one thing about that?
Chris Riback: Of course.
Ben Rhodes: He’s very much like Havel in the sense that, he told me, “Look, I’m not just looking to be a dissident. I’m looking to win. I want things to change in Russia. I wouldn’t waste my time just being persecuted for the sake of being persecuted.” And yet, the last time I was in contact with him was right before he flew back to Russia. He was in Germany, recovering from being poisoned. He knew what was going to happen to him when he went back. He thinks that that’s part of winning. It may not look that way.
And tragically, he may not even make it himself, but I think what he realizes is like Havel is if I’m a leader, and people are looking to me. If I give up my belief, if I look like, “I don’t think this is worth it, I’m going to stay in Germany,” then why would anybody else think things can change, right? And that’s a very powerful lesson.
Chris Riback: Did he tell you he was going back? Did you know that?
Ben Rhodes: He didn’t. The last time, I was just kind of trading message with him and he was making jokes. He has this kind of dark sense of humor. But, I mean, he told me, he told me this thing about, that I couldn’t get out of my head when I saw everything that happened to him, which is that, of course, he’s scared. Of course, it’s scary. He said to me, “Of course, it’s scary when the cell door closes, and I know they can do anything.” But the part of what kept him going was his belief that he could win.
And part of it was that his family supported. It’s just like a very human thing. “My wife is on board with this.” And I saw her go to Russia and participate in protest. And I couldn’t get those words out of my head. It’s not just Navalny, it’s his family. And everything I learned about the guy in the process of writing this book and talking to him, made it unsurprising that he did go back.
Chris Riback: Yes, it’s a remarkable story. And yes, we all saw the video of his wife and starting from him kissing her goodbye and they had clearly made that decision.
Ben Rhodes: A choice, yes.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Ben Rhodes: Together, together. Yes.
Chris Riback: For sure. Current events, I can’t talk to a guy like you, without getting a little bit of your thoughts on current events. You mentioned Biden and as well, it’s my take, as an outsider, I’m only marginally less removed from the center of power than you have been. That what you just said about China and about the China model, and the tension, the clash between historical American democracy, and whatever that is kind of evolving and being reinvented into, as democracy is supposed to do. In my opinion, when I read what Biden says and if you listen to him, that’s clearly at the center of what he thinks he is there to do.
So, that’s going on internationally on some level as well on the domestic agenda, as you know, Biden’s being compared to FDR, is being compared to LBJ in terms of the size and progressiveness of his domestic agenda. You know as well, as I do that, if we could have a conversation with LBJ, he would tell us, “Well, you might want to focus on domestic issues, but the Foreign Affairs can unwind the presidency.” When you look around, do you see a potential “Biden’s Vietnam,” I mean, Israel-Gaza comes to mind; Russia-Ukraine comes to mind; China-Taiwan comes to mind; Afghanistan as you and I are having this conversation today, there’s more news that towns and the Taliban is taking back territory as the US exits. If you were advising Biden, is one of these most pressing in your mind?
Ben Rhodes: That’s a good way of framing the question. I think that what’s so challenging about the world and the world as faced by an American President is there’s challenges of inaction and action, right? So, when I look at what could be, if you look at in Iran, for instance, we made a judgment that like obviously, the United States is not going to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon that’d be so destabilizing for reasons that take a long time to talk about, but another war in the Middle East with the country as sophisticated as Iran would, I mean, my gosh, would make the Iraq War probably look like a smaller or never.
Chris Riback: Yes, it’s much smaller.
Ben Rhodes: And so, the challenge for them is you don’t want to get drawn into a war that you don’t absolutely have to fight. And so, Afghanistan is going to be a particular challenge, because things are going to get worse there. The question is can we make them better by fighting a war there? I don’t think so and it’s a tragedy, but the tragedy is the Taliban has been taking territory for years now, with American troops there. And I think what Biden’s calculator is like, “We can’t keep spending trillions of dollars sending people to fight in a war that started before they were born,” right? Iran, I hope they avoid the trap of getting back on a cycle towards conflict with Iran by getting back into nuclear deal.
But when I look out at it, I do think that there’s real flashpoints. Taiwan is definitely one of them. I don’t think that Xi Jinping wants to end his tenure, which is going to go on for a while, obviously, without Taiwan being reunited with China. In managing that, so to try to avoid a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and to try to avoid America getting into war with China, is an enormously complicated piece of business that they will have to do. Managing pushing back against Vladimir Putin, without him encroaching further into Europe with another Ukraine style action in some other country is tricky.
So, the things that can really derail not just the presidency, but kind of upend the global order are the great power conflicts. Get something with Russia, something with China, they have to figure out a way. And this is, I’m sympathetic to how hard this is to do, to I think push back without the pushback leading you into the war. And I think in doing so and thus far, I think godliness, they have to recognize that the best way to push back is by fixing things here in the United States. When I look at the Cold War, we kind of seem to internalize a lesson that we won that through our foreign policy. I don’t think that’s why we won the Cold War. I mean, sure, it contributed to it. We had allies, we had defense budget, all the rest of it.
I think it was the fact that by the time that the late ’80s rolled around, it was so obvious that life was better on one side of the Iron Curtain than the other. People wanted to live like us. They wanted a system like ours, not like the Soviets, that it was what we did at home. And by the way, even things like the Civil Rights Movement contributed to that, because it took away, part of the argument that now America is full of it. They’re just as… that they have just their own flavor of subjugation.
And so, I think that the answer to this challenge in China and Russia, and I think, it makes point in the book, China’s the one that’s real, Russia is kind of the spoiler. China’s the one that’s kind of coming in to take over and kind of reshape the world. The answer to that is it starts here. We got to fix our democracy. We got to make sure that our democracy can do big things. We got to redevelop the example of a multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy. That’s ultimately going to be more important than how many ships we have in the South China Sea or something, even though that’s a piece of it. And that’s also a way of thinking about it, that is less likely to lead you into a war.
Chris Riback: Your resume is an International Affairs, Foreign Affairs guy. Do you find yourself thinking more domestically? Did that surprise you? Is that something that you came away from your journeys with? Because for a foreign policy guy, you’re sounding strongly domestic agenda. And I’m oversimplifying and trying to have a little bit of fun with you as well. But you know what I mean?
Ben Rhodes: No, that’s exactly right. Yes, 100%. And I came to realize that what America is, the example we’re setting, how we think of our identity, what we’re showing the world is much more important than any single foreign policy we could pursue. And I heard that from people. I heard that from people in Hong Kong. I heard that from people like Navalny. I heard that from people in Hungary. They weren’t looking to debate the nuances of American-Middle East Policy with me.
They were like… Navalny said to me, “The worst thing about Trump is that his whole life, that he’s been involved in politics.” He said, “He’s been making an argument that in a democracy, there’s less corruption, and better people rise to the top than in autocracies.” And he’s like, “Trump is a body blow to that.” Because he’s here at the top, and he said this to me, “At the top of your system is a corrupt guy who’s an autocrat.”
I think, we, Americans don’t realize it like what we’re modeling is more important. And I think people in foreign policy, by the way, lose sight of this, too, because we think it’s all, there’s some formula that if we can create some mix of military spending or targeted strikes someplace and/or deal struck here. All that stuff is really important, but it’s not as important as just like, “Hey, what does the world see when they look at America?”
Chris Riback: So, as we start to conclude, one of the things that you wrote was, and it’s kind of the maybe the central point of, maybe it’s the why. You wrote, “We must determine what it means to be American again.” And I thought about that and then I thought as well about after your four-year odyssey or three-year odyssey, do you feel you figured it out?
And I started to think about the scene that you describe of you and Cody Keenan, in the back of the car and your wife’s driving. And you’re compiling a list of heroes for President Obama for his speech at Selma. Is there a connection thinking about those heroes with Cody Keenan, former White House speechwriter, and with your journey – did you come to some determination of what it means to be American again?
Ben Rhodes: I did. And I’m so glad you asked this. And I’m going to give the long answer, but trust me, there’s a short answer at the end of it. I came to think about my own life. And in the Cold War, we, our identity was very tied up with that. We were for freedom and they were for communism or dictatorship. And look, of course, we didn’t live up to that, but I know, from my own feeling growing up there that that was the national identity. We were the people for freedom and they were the people for the other thing, and we all kind of agreed on that. And by the way, that kind of put some guardrails, too, around like someone like Trump probably couldn’t become President in the Cold War. It was too serious, right?
And we never agreed on a national identity post-Cold War. What are we about? And I think Trump and Obama represent two like kind of diametrically opposed answers to that. And we’ve always had two stories in this country, right? All Men Are Created Equal was written by a guy who owned slaves, right? And Trump is the kind of reactionary strain that runs through American history, that, “No, this is for some people, not everybody. We have to keep people out.” Let’s face it. It’s rooted in a kind of a white supremacy, that America is great, because we’re strong and it’s for some people.
And Obama is in this tradition of America is about trying to make things better and the democracy allows us to do that. And that led to that speech where he basically came up with this kind of radical idea of creating the canon of progressive heroes, that Selma represents the whole story. On one side of the bridge is John Lewis and a bunch of people who want to march across that bridge. On the other side of that bridge is the police, wanting to push back. That’s the whole American story in nature. And so, he’s defining who is on our side of the bridge.
And we had this kind of delirious, joyful experience. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, like the people who fought for women’s rights. Jackie Robinson stealing home base. People invented jazz. Like the Emerson and Thoreau made an appearance, like just, who is the canon of people that did the work of trying to make America better. And I get excited just thinking about it. By the way, they’re also not the people, and this isn’t just like a woke exercise. This is a question of like, “What does it mean to be American?” That leads to the answer that I want to give you. I realized in writing this book, like being American, yes, it’s about a multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy, that can work, but it’s also about doing the work. The act of being an American is pursuing.
That story that we tell ourselves that we never live up to. Pursuing a story of a multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy that can work where people are treated equally, have equal dignity. It’s the work itself. All those people that were in that cannon that we talked about in that Selma speech, that’s being American. It’s not just something that we take as granted by God. It’s not just something that’s inevitable. It’s not the end of history. It’s the rolling up your sleeves, right? And that’s why a president alone can’t solve this either. It takes enough people walking across that bridge.
Chris Riback: You got to do the work.
Ben Rhodes: Yes.
Chris Riback: I hate to do this to you because you seem like a nice guy, and I really, I don’t want to get you in trouble. But you just, you mentioned the two stories and the two sides, and maybe I want to get you in a little bit of trouble. But I got to close with the question that I’m certain will leave half of your friends and family furious with you and the other half celebrating. Part of the two sides of personality that you write about, of course is your own, which leads to the really important question, are you more Texas or New York? And your recent Knicks tweets kind of give the answer away, I think, but why don’t I let you take a whack at it.
Ben Rhodes: I’m a New Yorker. And, as I say in the book, to kind of how did I think of my identity as a kid, it was like American New Yorker, and I have a Jewish background, although my father is Christian from Texas and that infuses me. I mean, I soaked up the Texas side as well. I went to college down there. But New York to me is, and I get that not every place can be like New York. But like, what I love about it is like New York is like the world in miniature and American in miniature. Everybody’s there, people from everywhere. And I love that.
And yes, as a Knicks fan, to see that energy in Madison Square Garden, which I remember, as a kid going to games there and feeling that feels like the whole world is at the game. It’s like both in the diversity and in the noise and just the energy. I love the energy of New York. Now, my wife, because I subjected her to eight years of a White House lifestyle got to pick where we went next. And she’s from out here in LA. And I got to say LA, it’s a lot. I’d like to recommend it to, but I’ll always be a New Yorker.
Chris Riback: I had a feeling that was where it was going to go. Well, the Knicks thank you. And I thank you. Thanks for taking the time. Thanks for what you wrote. You took the reader on a journey, so thank you for that.
Ben Rhodes: No, I appreciate that. And again, you always want people to read your book, but especially this one, even more than the last one, because I structured in a way of like, “I want you to come with me. Come, I’m traveling. I’m talking to people. I want you to hear these people. They’re fascinating.” So, I’m glad that you took that away.
Chris Riback: Thanks for the time, Ben.
Ben Rhodes: Thanks a lot.